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02/28/10 3:11 PM EST

Zito wants to return to good old days

Left-hander believes he has stuff to reclaim winning status

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Barry Zito used to be the main man on the Giants' starting staff. Despite four years remaining on his seven-year, $126 million contract, he now may be in the No. 3 slot. And he doesn't like the view.

"I wouldn't say I'm fine with it, I'm not," Zito told MLB.com this past week in a candid and wide-ranging interview. "I'm competitive by nature, and of course, I want to be the guy. It's important. But the way I pitched in 2008, it didn't deem me worthy of being the No. 1 starter going into last season. But no, I'm not happy being a No. 3 starter."

Manager Bruce Bochy said on Sunday that Zito probably will be slotted in the second game when Spring Training begins for the Giants against the Mariners in Peoria, Ariz., on Wednesday. That means Zito would start against the Brewers at Scottsdale Stadium on Thursday.

In his halcyon days with the A's, it was a tossup between Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Now, it's Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Zito, who is 31 and eight years removed from his 23-5, 2002 American League Cy Young Award-winning season. He's 31-43 in the three years since he signed with the Giants.

The way the deal is structured with his salary accelerating at the back end, he's the highest-paid player on the team this season at $18.5 million. He'll make that same figure again in 2011 and '12 before topping off at $20.5 million in '13, the last guaranteed year of the contract.

The Giants have an $18 million option on the '14 season or they can buy out Zito for $7 million.

Lincecum, who has won the Cy Young Award in the National League the past two seasons, avoided arbitration by signing a two-year deal worth $10 million this season and $13 million in 2011.

That's just the way the Major League salary structure works with service time having more value than performance until a player reaches free agency after six seasons. Lincecum is beginning his fourth season, Zito his 11th, and therein lies the difference. Zito signed as a free agent. Lincecum signed with the Giants still controlling him for three more seasons.

The big contract has been a double-edged sword for Zito. On one hand, it's provided lifetime financial security. On the other, it established unrealistic expectations for the left-hander, who stressed that he's not angry or bitter about the way the situation has evolved for him in San Francisco. He figures he has plenty of time remaining to make it right.

"I want to earn my stature back. I don't expect anybody to give it to me," Zito said. "I want to be a top-of-the-rotation guy again. I want to be out there on Opening Day, getting the win. It's important to me."

Zito thinks he bottomed out in 2008 with a 10-17 record, a 5.15 ERA and a 102/120 walk-to-strikeout ratio. Last year, in the No. 2 slot, he bounced back with a 10-13 record, a 4.03 ERA and an 81/154 walk-to-strikeout ratio that was by far his best with the Giants. From July 7 on, his ERA dropped almost a run from a high of 5.01 to his final 4.03. Yet he was only 5-5 during those 16 starts.

Bochy said that Zito simply had more command of the strike zone, and he expects that trend to continue.

"We all hope he throws the ball like he did last year, he threw the ball well," Bochy said. "His numbers weren't indicative of how well he threw. He went through a 10-game stretch when he was pitching as well as anybody. He was locked in. We just need to get him some runs. He needs that consistency from Game 1 until the end."

It's no secret that when Zito has less control of his pitches, they flatten out. If he's high in the zone with his 88-89-mph fastball, hitters just sit on the pitch and whack it. He said pressure early on as a member of the Giants caused him to make numerous mistakes. He's older and more mature now, he said, with his focus where it should be: on baseball.

"I had games last year with the same fastball I threw in my Cy Young year, about the same speed," Zito said. "My stuff is generally pretty much the same. I dropped my arm slot a little in '08 and that got me a little bit of velocity back."

There's no question about his tact now: "It's about being loose and having fun," Zito said. "When I got here, I wanted to make good on my contract. Now, it's just about going out there and having integrity in my work ethic every day. I'm just trying to stay in the moment."

That approach could very well lead him back to the No. 1 slot.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.